This year’s TIFF featured three tales of lost souls forging their own paths — some of them bloodier than others.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Tales of transformation are the order of the day at this year’s TIFF, signposted by a trio of European films acutely concerned with the struggles women and AFAB people undertake to thrive — or, in many cases, just survive. Take Héléna Klotz‘s spellbinding second feature, Spirit of Ecstasy, an icy but enthralling coming-of-age story centered around Jeanne Francoeur (Claire Pommet, best known under her French pop star alias Pomme) a non-binary child of a French gendarme who struggles to break through the glass ceiling of the French wealth management firm they work at as a quantitative analyst.
Jeanne cuts a mysterious figure, with their black bob, turquoise suit that acts like armor (“the new proletarian uniform”), the bindings that cut into their skin and make them bleed. At all times, Klotz paints Jeanne as a figure constantly struggling to break free of their environment, whose abusive upbringing in the French gendarmerie barracks pushes them inexorably towards a cutthroat, ambitious business environment ready to chew them up and spit them out at a moment’s notice.
And yet, that same danger seems to tug Jeanne into its orbit, mainly as she draws the eye of their boss, Farès (Sofianne Zermani, her voice a deep, reedy purr), who eyes them for a potentially life-changing internship. But it would forever take them away from their family, including their younger brother and sister, not to mention the handsome soldier Augustin (Niels Schneider), who returns from a years-long tour hoping to rekindle their complicated relationship.
Pommet plays these angles with remarkable iciness, volumes of internal conflict seeping out from under those quintessential French bangs; it’s a quiet but powerful performance for a film that’s dedicated to keeping its audience at an aesthetic distance from its central character — often to a fault. Their nonbinaryness also seems somewhat superfluous to the story: Not that we need every story about trans people to be about their transness, but the film seems to miss some vital ways to connect the myriad ways Jeanne feels stuck between worlds.
Luckily, another film about a young person straddling twin destinies is far more fleet-footed and fun: Ariane Louis-Seize‘s delightful Quebecois horror comedy Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person. This time, the subject in question is Sasha (Sara Montpetit), the teenage (though she’s sixtysomething in human years) black sheep in a family of vampires; much to her family’s chagrin, Sasha just doesn’t have it in her to kill random innocents. The only time her fangs even come out is if she feels tremendous sympathy for her victim. Fed up with their daughter’s squeamishness, her family decides to cut off her blood supply, leaving her to figure out the whole flesh-sucking thing on her own.
Sent to live with her lackadaisical vampire cousin (Noémie O’Farrell), Sasha soon finds an unexpected potential solution to her troubles: a young suicidal boy named Paul (Félix-Antoine Bénard), who just genuinely doesn’t see the point of living. After figuring out quickly that she’s a vampire, he sees a potential end to his suffering, while Sasha sees the kind of boy she could really sink her teeth into.
While teen vampire stories are hardly anything new, there’s something lovely about Louis-Selze’s mundane treatment of vampirism here, all channeled into an erstwhile coming-of-age romance that’s morbid without being distasteful. Montpetit is that classic ’60s-styled French goth chick, long black hair flowing down past sharp bangs that frame her face like a habit; there’s more than a bit of Sheila Vand in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night to Sasha, right down to the quick interlude to dance along to a sprightly pop song. It’s all very cute, propped up further by the quaint dynamics and droll, deadpan humor of Sasha’s extended vampire family.
But sometimes that cuteness gets in the way of any satirical bite Humanist Vampire might have. The tale of a young vampire navigating an unconventional relationship with a doomed human is nothing new; we’ve got Let the Right One In for that, at least. And twee gags about vampires going about the bureaucratic business of human life are well-trod as recently as What We Do in the Shadows. Louis-Selze doesn’t aim for much more than cutesiness here, from her tightly controlled visual style (lots of two-shots and comic-book framings) to the relatively bloodless presentation. Still, as warm and fuzzy teen-horror romances go, there’s plenty of charm to luxuriate in.
Tales of resilience during the Holocaust can often veer unfortunately into formula and mawkishness: The moral clarity endemic to the tragedy can often flatten the kind of nuance you require to tell compelling, human stories. And yet, the best tales come from finding the complexities within that clarity — when the right thing to do is so very clear, but might get you killed, how do you live with that? It’s a question well-worn by many a Holocaust story, but Irena’s Vow manages to carve out compelling melodrama from those clear gestures of virtue, and the seismic costs that come with them.
Sophie Nélisse (Yellowjackets) stars as the titular Irena Gut, the real-life Polish nurse who found herself in the service of the Nazis in 1939 after Germany invaded her home country of Poland. (The film is adapted from Dan Gordon’s play of the same name, which starred Tovah Feldshuh in the role.) In the opening minutes, she goes from hearing the Nazis have invaded to seeing one walk out of her house, claiming he owns it now. This early sequence shows the depths of Irena’s adaptability; Nélisse quivers in fear, but tamps it down, claims she has the wrong house, and simply keeps walking. It’s this ability to roll with the punches (not to mention her dubiously “Germanic” last name) that will serve her well. Indeed, it keeps her alive by letting her schmooze her way into a job supervising 11 Jewish tailors, all of whom have lied about their expertise to stay just useful enough to live and who bond with Irena.
Eventually, her reputation puts her in the good graces of Major Rugemer (Dougray Scott), who tasks her with readying a recently “acquired” villa on the outskirts of the city that he can use for his personal home, where she will serve as his housekeeper. And when she hears that the Jews are being rounded up for extermination, she concocts a risky plan: Sneak her 11 friends into the cellar of Major Rugemer’s home right under his nose. All things considered, that part is easy. It’s keeping them alive and out of sight, away from extortion threats and random checks and the Major’s temper, that’s the hard part.
Director Louise Archambault crafts a handsome, if occasionally formulaic, Holocaust drama that plays all the expected beats — callous Nazi youths dressing down or harming random Jews in the street, the frozen faces of Jews just hoping to not be noticed through floorboards and vents, the beleaguered hero worn down by their simple sacrifices. And yet Irena’s Vow avoids mawkishness in favor of letting its beats play out organically, ushering one from one close call to another and letting Irena do what she does best: put one foot in front of the other and think on her feet. Nélisse’s clever, determined performance is a picture of moral clarity, and she carries the picture with a welcome resolve that her delicacy belies. Scott, for his part, is sufficiently boarish and simpleminded, until a late-film turn that opens up new wells of vulnerability only to use those as an even more monstrous tool of manipulation.
What Irena’s Vow successfully conveys is the mundanity of heroism: people like Irena didn’t need to blow up tanks or shoot Nazi officers to do their part. All they could do, as many could at that time, was stay alive so they could save others. In real life, Gut faced accusations of Nazi collaboration before being exonerated and honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations. This film seems a fitting, if narratively neat, way to honor her legacy and heroism.